Last week I had the opportunity to be the keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Hershey. It was the first time in three years that PACAC was able to meet in person, and it was more like a homecoming or family reunion than a conference. It was nice to see old friends and meet new ones.
My keynote address was entitled “Professional Ethics: An Endangered Species?” and I explored some of the topics I’ve written about before and presented them. Frankly, after nearly 10 years of writing “Get into Ethical College,” I often worry that I’m repeating previous posts.
While researching my presentation, I realized that I had given a keynote 11 years ago at another PACAC event, the August Reception Workshop. For this gathering, I was asked to speak about the future of our profession, and I mentioned five big questions:
- Demographic changes
- Economic uncertainty
- Implementation of higher education counseling
- Changing the input landscape
- The Future of College Admissions and College Counseling as a Profession
All of these questions are still relevant, but what I didn’t (and probably couldn’t) predict is more noteworthy. I could never have dreamed that the Department of Justice would be investigating the National Association for College Admissions Counseling for potential antitrust violations. I didn’t foresee the Varsity Blues scandal. I never dreamed that we would survive a global pandemic in 10 years. And I didn’t expect the political climate and social unrest that led to the Black Lives Matter movement on the one hand and red state attempts to return to the 1950s on the other.
During my speech, I mainly talked about professional ethics, but I also talked about how COVID has highlighted the urgent need to pay attention to mental health and well-being. I suspect we will be dealing with the consequences for at least a decade as students who lost opportunities for learning and normal emotional development during the pandemic cycle through the education system. This is both a college counseling issue and an issue for colleges when students enroll.
The question for the college admissions profession is whether the college admissions process, as constructed, contributes to the stress and mental health problems experienced by today’s students.
The admissions process we have today is almost 100 years old. In its history of admissions to Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities, The chosen onessociologist Jerome Karabel talks about “paradigms” for college admissions (my word, not his).
A century ago, colleges were looking for the “best student.” Admission was based on purely academic preparation, with the old college exams resembling today’s Advanced Placement exams in that they measured what content a student knew.
In the 1920s, colleges moved to another admissions paradigm, “best graduate.” Karabel argues that the rationale for the change was that the “best student” paradigm produced too many Jewish students. Today, one of the arguments of Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is that Asian American students are discriminated against in the same way that Jewish students were a century ago.
The “best graduate” paradigm led to many of the admissions conventions we rely on today. Admissions became “holistic” rather than purely academic, with essays, activities and letters of recommendation becoming part of the admissions process. While I believe in the concept of comprehensive admissions, the addition of these factors has made applying to college akin to signing up for a private club. At the same time, the SAT supplanted the old College Board exams, then considered a measure of ability, as venerable Northeastern colleges and universities sought to become more national in their student bodies and find “diamonds in the rough.”
The third, current paradigm is what might be called “best in class.” While colleges once accepted well-rounded students, today they are looking for a well-rounded class. Highly selective colleges form the class rather than admit deserving individuals, and admit students based on how they help the institution achieve its strategic goals. We talk about student-centered enrollment, but what we really have is institution-centered enrollment.
Is it time for a fourth paradigm?
Given what we know about adolescent growth and development and concerns about access and mental health, is it time for a fourth paradigm?
There has already been considerable debate about the future role of standardized admissions testing. The entrance exam has become mostly an optional test, and in some cases a blind test. Is this a temporary change or the new normal? Was MIT’s reintroduction of testing a harbinger or an exception?
I suspect the latter. I could be wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), but I don’t see the testing industry becoming as important as it once was. The Ivies and near-Ivies, which admit less than 10 percent of applicants, can avoid the testing requirement, but will students bother applying to colleges with test requirements when there are so many test options available? This is especially true for colleges that recruit heavily in California, where both the University of California and the California State University system no longer consider test scores as part of their admissions processes. Are colleges willing to see a drop in applications in exchange for requiring test scores?
The testing debate raises broader philosophical questions about the value of test scores. How much predictive value does testing add to a student’s record? Are standardized tests the engines of equity and access that test advocates claim, or do they measure economic privilege instead of academic readiness? How do we explain test preparation that makes the same results not mean the same thing? Do we worship the false accuracy of test scores? And do we measure what we value, or do we value what we can measure?
Testing may not be the only part of the admissions process subject to debate and reconsideration. An Inside Higher Ed article earlier this year questioned whether letters of recommendation are fair or even outdated given the disparity in school cultures and advising workloads.
So what might the fourth college admissions paradigm look like? At the risk of once again demonstrating my knowledge of the obvious, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind.
- The college admissions process should measure readiness for the college experience. Everything we ask of students should predict success in college, and we should carefully evaluate the obstacles we expect candidates to overcome. What information is essential for admission? Earlier this week, the college’s dean acknowledged that some of the information required on the application is only relevant to students when they enroll, not for admission.
- The college search should encourage discernment and self-understanding. Thinking about and applying to college is part of a larger journey for students, a journey that should create a better understanding of who they are, what interests them, and what they want from their lives.
- Applying to college should be a “golden hair” process – not too easy, not too hard, just right.
- The admissions process should be student-centered, not institution-centered.
There is another guide that will be much more difficult to achieve. It’s the idea that the admissions process should serve as a bridge from adolescence to adulthood, a rite of passage. Taking the SAT and ACT and writing personal essays don’t exactly compare to rites of passage in other cultures, such as young Maasai warriors killing a lion (although this rite seems to have evolved from the lack of lions in the Serengeti, from 200,000 a century ago to less than 30,000 today). Psychologist Michael Thompson has called the college admissions process a “failed” rite of passage, providing an ordeal without catharsis.
The goal of bridging to adulthood may just be a dream. Given what we know about brain development, it may be unrealistic to expect high school students to have the self-awareness or life skills that I want college to require. I’m not willing to admit that, and that doesn’t mean those desires aren’t valid.
Is it time to rethink the college admissions process we have in place? Can we develop a better paradigm?